Egypt: History - The Upper Paleolithic

Upper Paleolithic: 30,000 - 10,000 BC

Some time around the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, or in the few centuries before it, the Mousterian Pluvial ended and desert once again reclaimed the Sahara region. Fleeing the desert, many of the peoples settled in the area migrated closer and closer to the Nile. It is possibly during this time that various tribes began to interact, providing a much wider gene pool on which to draw. It is unfortunate that little is known about the period from 40,000 - 17,000 BC. However, it is easy to draw conclusions based on earlier and later events. The growing barrenness of the Sahara would obviously cause many of the settlements to die of starvation, and once again survival of the human race in this area depended on the Nile. Naturally, some industries would survive and new ones would be created. These new industries show many similar trends, especially that of the miniaturization of tools, possibly as a desire to conserve resources. Most of the data about this period in time comes from the famous site of Kom Ombo. Kom Ombo is located on the east bank of the Nile in the southern area of Upper Egypt. Archaeologists know that this site is from the Upper Paleolithic because of the existence of burins, small, stubby, pointed tools made of flakes and characterized by long, narrow flakes forming a point. The discovery of burins in Egyptian archaeological sites prompted Edmund Vignard, the discoverer of Kom Ombo, to label it a new industry: the Sebilian.

Sebilian tools are manufactured from diorite, a hard, black, igneous rock that was plentiful in the area. The Sebilian Industry is divided into three distinct stages, based on the artifacts created and the techniques used to make them. Sebilian I, also called Lower Sebilian, is essentially a modified Levallois industry with retouched points and the first burins (small, knobby points). Sebilian II and III are true microblade and burin industries and by this time diorite had given way to the more durable and workable flint. But even with these developments, Sebilian artifacts appear technologically conservative and backward when compared with some of the Upper Paleolithic industries in Europe.

Complicating everything, however, is the discovery of a coexisting industry now labeled Silsillian (c. 13,000 BC) which effectively puts the early Egyptians back at the forefront of prehistoric technological development. Sisillian was a highly-developed microblade industry that included truncated blades, blades of unusual shapes made specifically for one task, and most significant of all, a wide variety of bladelets for mounting onto spears, darts, and arrows. There is almost no trace of earlier techniques such as Levalloisian, and Silsillian blades in some cases are thousands of years ahead of anything found in Europe from this period. The Silsillian Industry also premiered the creation of microliths. Microliths are small, fine blades used in advanced tools such as arrows, harpoons, and sickles, and since they are smaller, use less material. This latter development may have been due to the fact that in the Kom Ombo area, high-quality stone was in short supply. Additionally, the fact that these blades were used for agricultural tools such as sickles shows that by this time basic farming had begun, and earlier than had been previously thought.

Unlike their European "contemporaries" who had to deal with the changing post-ice age climate and the disappearance of several food species, the early Egyptians were still able to engage in hunting large game animals, and since many of the animal herds were now concentrated near the Nile, more stable settlements could be made. The Halfan Industry, or rather, the Halfan people, for it was much more than just a way of making tools, flourished between 18,000 and 15,000 BC (though one site has been found dating to before 24,000 BC) on a diet of large herd animals and the Khormusan tradition of fishing. Although there are only a few Halfan sites and they are small in size, there is a greater concentration of artifacts, indicating that this was not a people bound to seasonal wandering, but one that had settled, at least for a time.

Another group that did rather well during this time (17,000 - 15,000 BC) was the Fakhurian, an industry based entirely on microlithic tools. Indeed, they are the only industry discovered so far that is solely microlithic. Some Fakhurian blades are less than 3 cm long! At the same time, the two Idfuan industries were retaining a culture based on nomadic hunting, trapping, and snaring. During this time, at least in Upper Egypt, there is a trend for industries, as they become more advanced, to become more localized. No doubt this is due to the fact that the people were ceasing to be nomadic, settling in various areas, and then developing separately from everyone else depending on the environment in which they made their home, whether it was on the banks of the Nile, on the savannas, or in one of the outlying oases not yet claimed by the desert. Perhaps it should be mentioned that the Nile of the Paleolithic was much different than the Nile of today. Although dry, the desert areas were not completely hostile, as the annual flooding of the Nile was much higher than today, which resulted in a greater groundwater table and in turn, oases, floodpools, and waterholes.

With the sites from these periods archaeologists begin to see the signs of "true" cultures emerging. The Qadan (13,000 - 9,000 BC) sites, stretching from the Second Cataract of the Nile to Tushka (about 250 km upriver from Aswan), actually have cemeteries and evidence of ritual burial. It is also during this time that the first great experiments in ordered agriculture began. Grinding stones and blades have been found in great numbers with a glossy film of silica on them, possibly the result of cut grass stems. Sadly, as stone preserves better than straw baskets or satchels, the extent of agriculture from this period can not be determined. It may not have been true agriculture as we know it, but rather a sort of systematic "caring for" the local plant life (watering and harvesting, but as yet no planting in ordered rows and the like). Yet even this would put the Paleolithic Egyptians on almost the same technological level as the early Neolithic peoples in Europe. Some of the sites also give evidence that fishing was abandoned by the people living there, possibly because farmed grains (barley, most likely), together with the large herd animals still hunted, created a diet that was more than adequate.

Oddly though, almost as soon as this protoagriculture was developed, it appears to have been abandoned. Beginning around 10,500 BC, the stone sickles that were so predominant seem to simply fade out of the picture and there is a return to the hunter-gatherer-fisher culture that came before. Invasion by another people is a possible explanation, though a series of natural disasters that devastated the fledgling crops is more logical, as we are dealing with abandonment by not one, but many prehistoric societies over a widespread area. At first it would seem that the growing aridity of the environment was the cause. Certainly, given the present state of the Sahara and the surrounding area, this is a logical conclusion, but new evidence shows that this period was marked by a series of rather severe and violent Nile floods which could have destroyed the "farmlands" and discouraged the people from continuing to rely on crops as a dietary index.

It was about this time that the demise of the various Paleolithic peoples in Egypt began. It may very well be that the abandonment of protoagriculture contributed to this, but the discovery of the Jebel Sahaba cemetery sheds some new light on the end of many Paleolithic cultures. In all, three Qadan cemeteries are known: one at Tushka, and two at Jebel Sahaba, one on each side of the river. Although many of the remains unearthed at these sites are the usual cross-section of elderly and young, chieftains and commoners, there are quite a disturbing number of bodies from the final 10,000 years of the Upper Paleolithic that appear to have died by violence. Stone points found with the remains were almost all located in areas of the body that suggests penetration as spear points or similar weapons. Most were located in the chest and back area, with others in the lower abdomen, and even a few entering the skull through the lower jaw or neck area! Additionally, the lack of bony calluses as a result of healing near these points shows that in many of these cases the wound was fatal (bone tissue repairs itself rather quickly, preliminary healing often begins before even that of soft tissues). A statistical analysis of the main cemetery at Jebel Sahaba gives a figure of 40 percent of the people buried there died from wounds due to thrown projectiles; spears, darts, and arrows.

Why then was a hunter-gatherer culture so prone to violence? One explanation is diminishing resources, caused by the growing aridity and the failure of the protoagriculture experiments. The Jebel Sahaba cemeteries must only have been used for a few generations and for that many violent deaths to occur within that time supports an explanation based on massive intertribal warfare. Also, since the victims were of all ages (except infants; only one infant is buried in each of the Jebel Sahaba cemeteries), this could indicate that the majority of the skirmishes were actually based on raiding and ambush, as "normal" warfare usually only involves young to middle-aged males. And we should not dismiss the possibility of invasion by a more advanced, or at least more powerful, people from outside, especially if Jebel Sahaba and similar sites date to as late as 7000 BC, as by then the people would have been in competition with larger and more advanced Epipaleolithic cultures.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011